Michelle Byrom’s trial is a classic example of why I oppose the death penalty. As Nomadic Politics observed, while this is a death penalty case, that is not why it deserves a closer look. Rather, it’s because the facts compel us to ask the state of Mississippi, how it can justify the judicial killing of an innocent women. It compels us to question the justness of our criminal justice system and it forces us to recognize that not everyone gets a fair trial. All too often, these things occur in capital cases.
This is a story about a woman who was abused all her life – only to be abused in a different way by the judicial system in Mississippi. Her defense team didn’t defend her and even recommended that she waive her right to be sentenced by a jury. The judge withheld exculpatory evidence, including testimony from the psychologist he appointed to examine Michelle Byrom’s mental competence.
As Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic pointed out in his detailed account of Michelle Byrom’s story, she has a diagnosed mental illness and a history of self-destructive behavior.
None of this was brought out in court, which at the very least would have pointed to mitigating factors during sentencing.
Of the three people allegedly involved in the 1999 murder of Edward Byrom, two of them are now free to live their lives. Edward Byrom, Jr. confessed to the crime in letters and in a conversation with a court appointed psychologist, which the psychologist found credible, given the corroborating evidence. It should also be pointed out that Edward Byrom, Jr. was abused by his father, which is typical in cases of domestic abuse. The full text of one of his letters can be read here. Junior led investigators to the murder weapon and of the three people, he was the only one with gun powder residue on his hands. Junior took the classic plea bargain, a lighter sentence in exchange for testimony against his mother. Joey Gillis is junior’s friend. During Michelle Byrom’s trial, prosecutors alleged she hired Gillis to kill her husband. The jury didn’t believe that Gillis killed the senior Byrom because, unlike in Michelle Byrom’s case, they were presented with the evidence against Junior. He got a lighter sentence than Junior and is now free to live his life.
Granted, prosecutors can point to the fact that Michelle Byrom also confessed. But as Andrew Cohen points out, that confession was taken “while she was heavily medicated, amid questions about her mental stability.”
What exactly did this confession sound like? The sheriff told the addled Byrom: “Listen, we are going to be able to pull enough together … don’t leave [Edward, Jr.] hanging out here to bite the big bullet.” To which Michelle Byrom, Edward Jr.’s mother, replied: “No, he’s not going to. I wouldn’t let him … I will take all the responsibility. I’ll do it.
Michelle Byrom is scheduled to die on March 27, 2014. Mississippi’s Supreme Court has not yet approved that date, which only means the state ordered execution will probably occur at a later time. She is the first woman in 70 years, that the state of Mississipi will kill, following a trial, that at best can be called a tragedy of errors. The more appropriate description is miscarriage of justice. Her defense lawyers didn’t offer a single witness’s testimony at any stage in the legal proceedings. They didn’t even bother to call Dr. Keith Caruso, who the defense hired to evaluate Michelle Byrom’s mental state to explain why she didn’t leave her abuse husband or divorce him. His explanation should have been heard by a jury – if at no other point, during the penalty phase of Michelle Byrom’s trial.
Michelle Byrom presented a clinical picture that is entirely consistent with someone who endured extreme abuse as a child,” he concluded. “If I had been called to testify at the penalty phase of Michelle Byrom’s trial, I would have offered the opinion that because of her depression, alcohol dependence, Munchausen syndrome, and Borderline Personality Disorder, she was inclined to harm herself and act in a self-defeating manner, so that she was psychologically unable to leave the abusive relationship with her husband.
Then there’s the judge who had enough faith in the expertise of psychologist, Dr. Criss Lott, to assess the mental state of all three accused, (which presents another problem) but for some reason decided against admitting the psychologist’s findings to the jury and possibly not even sharing them with the defense. Junior’s confession letters were kept out of evidence, as were the facts that Junior led authorities to the murder weapon and that he had gun powder residue on his hands. Actually, we can’t blame the judge because in just one example of the ineffective counsel that Michelle Byrom had, her lawyers decided to spring the letters on prosecutors at the very last minute. I’m not a lawyer, but even I know that tactic is frowned upon by the courts.
Obviously, this evidence was otherwise admissible, since it was mentioned in Joey Gillis’ trial.
Byrom was convicted on charges relating to the murder death of Edward Byrom. Specifically, prosecutors claimed she was “the mastermind” of the conspiracy. She hired Joey Gillis and paid him $15,000.
Michelle Byrom, obviously lacked the financial resources necessary to buy effective counsel, let alone a zealous defense. But, under our constitution, that doesn’t mean she isn’t entitled to effective counsel, who will protect her rights, and at the very least, offer mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase.
That happens way too often in the criminal justice system. This case is also an indictment of attitudes toward victims of abuse.
To someone who hasn’t been abused, let alone abused throughout their lives, it may seem reasonable to conclude that since Michelle Byrom didn’t leave her husband, there is room to doubt if the abuse occurred. Of if it did occur, it really wasn’t all that bad. It doesn’t occur that a person who has endured a lifetime of abuse is psychologically broken to the point that they are unable to leave that relationship. In this case, Michelle Byrom’s defense didn’t even try to provide the court with expert testimony to explain what a life time of abuse had done to Michelle Byrom’s state of mind. Not during the trial phase and not during the penalty phase in which testimony of this nature would count as a mitigating factor.
Naturally, all involved in Michelle Byrom’s conviction and sentencing defend their actions, because, after all, a man was murdered. Someone has to pay. Moreover, looking deeper into this case, would raise difficult questions, like why did the judge choose to withhold exculpatory evidence that was A: admissible and B: likely to change the outcome in Michelle Byron’s case. And why didn’t the courts at least acknowledge that her counsel was ineffective? It would mean recognizing asking why the Judge sentenced Michelle Byrom to death, even though the psychologist he appointed not only told him of Junior’s confession but that the confession was credible. And that’s just a few of the many questions for which answers may prove deeply embarrassing.
It would mean asking too many questions and making too many admissions about the shortcomings in our justice system – including a willingness to overlook ineffective counsel, exclude exculpatory evidence that likely would have changed the outcome of this case and the pervasiveness of willful ignorance about domestic abuse to the point that makes it possible for the courts to abuse victims of this crime one more time.
Ms. Woodbury has a graduate degree in political science, with a minor in law. She is a qualified expert on political theory with a specific interest in the nexus between political theories and models and human rights.
Based on her interest in human rights and the threats that authoritarian regimes are to them, Ms. Woodbury’s masters thesis examined the influence of politics on the enforcement of international criminal law was cited in several academic studies.
Published work includes case summaries for the War Crimes Research Office.
She has an extensive background doing legal research in international and domestic law.
Ms. Woodbury’s work for politicusUSA includes articles on voting rights, the right to asylum and other civil/human rights.